It’s easy for me to remember the year Jay Wright was hired at Villanova – 2001 – because it’s the same year my daughter was born. Dick Jerardi, who orchestrated the college hoops coverage at the Philadelphia Daily News, decided that year to swap me out of the La Salle beat and on to Villanova, figuring Wright’s fresh start was the perfect time for a fresh beat writer. I knew Wright a little bit, though I couldn’t say I knew him well.
But the secret to success in this job isn’t terribly difficult: show up. The more people see you and get to know you, the more they trust you. So I showed up, even toting my daughter to practice one day when I couldn’t get a sitter. I plopped her in her infant carrier on the press table, and Wright immediately screamed from across the court, “Move the baby. I have no idea where the ball is going. ” I wound up going everywhere with the Wildcats, from Alaska to the Virgin Islands and all the Big East stops in between, and treated that beat as if I was covering the White House. He jokingly called me a “pit bull” but more often than not called me “Kiddo.” (I’m a whopping six years younger than him, by the way.) He used that nickname so often, in fact, that when players called me from the Maui Classic to discuss a game, Randy Foye said, “What’s up, Kiddo ? ”
Twenty-one years later, Wright still calls me “Kiddo,” and by showing up, I have had the distinct privilege of a front-row seat to one of the most incredible stories in college basketball. After Villanova’s 2016 national title, I wrote a book called, “Long Shots ‘” the title both a play on Kris Jenkins’ dramatic 3-point buzzer-beater and the amazing and improbable journey Wright concocted at the school. When Wright first started, Villanova becoming the sport’s gold standard was not just a long shot; It was a three-legged horse stuck in the starting gate.
Back then, the Wildcats practiced while track athletes ran laps on the track circling the court, and baseball players hit dingers in the cage on the other side of the bleachers. I watched Wright jump on tables at the cafeteria and rode around in a golf cart with him as he tried to build student attendance. At one point, the administration stuck a few folding chairs in an upper corner of the Pavilion – that’s what passed for box seats in the airplane hangar of a building that Jerardi derisively and accurately referred to as “the Ski Lodge.”
When you’re in the thick of a thing, it’s impossible to sit back and consider what’s happening, or why and how it’s happening. Since Wednesday, when news broke of Wright’s retirement, I’ve thought about it a lot. And what I’ve come to realize is that while everything around Wright has changed, he has not. He is guided by a compass – not just a moral one, but an inner arrow that he does not deviate from. He knows who he is, and what he stands for, and therefore he was able to craft a program that knew what it was, and what it stood for.
That sounds incredibly easy; in truth, it’s really hard – for any of us, but especially for a man exposed to the klieg lights of fame and fortune, and subject to the fickle whims of a profession that evolves and pivots like a Villanova post-up guard seemingly every few years.
Yet Wright has made it seem effortless. He handles himself with grace, retiring without any residue attached to his name. Plenty of coaches are universally respected; few are also universally liked. Wright leaves the sport as a unicorn, an achievement maybe greater than his Olympic gold medal, two national titles and Hall of Fame membership.
When he coached at Hofstra, his assistant, Joe Jones, took to calling Wright “Elvis,” because every time he walked into a room people flocked to him. The flock grew bigger once he got to Villanova, filled not just with proud Villanovans but a collection of New Yorkers who always seemed to surface, eager to claim their native son – not letting the fact that Wright grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Bucks County get in the way. Except unlike Elvis, Wright was in no hurry to leave the building; He lingered, happy to chat his way across a room, leaving either his wife, Patty, or sports information director Mike Sheridan to attempt the impossible task of keeping Wright on schedule.
It’s because he was genuine that his program exuded sincerity, even authenticity. Back in 2006, as the Wildcats were starting to get good, national writers started finding their way to the program. In St. Louis that year during the Midwest Regional, I went out with a group of reporters, and as sportswriters are wont to do, everyone stood around a high-top table and started telling war stories about the coaches they covered – their persnickety personalities, or compulsion. to hide the truth. They then asked me about Wright. “I got nothing,” I said. Wright, I insisted, even flouted the tenet principle that Jerardi, my mentor, taught me early on: “They all lie.”
Instead he came up with his own solution to answering difficult questions about job openings, created on the fly the following year, in 2007, when Kentucky started sniffing around Wright after Tubby Smith fled for Minnesota. The pit bull in me gnawed for information, but Wright didn’t want to lie and tell me he wasn’t thinking about it. Instead he said he was “underground,” his own code word, which meant he wasn’t going to say anything to confirm or deny what I was asking, but I could interpret at my own discretion. Even this week, as news swirled around his retirement, Wright simply did not return my messages. Maddening, yes, but I also knew what it meant. If there were no truth to it, he would have told me. By saying nothing, he said what I needed to know – not enough to report, maybe, but enough at least to understand.
By 2016, when Villanova rolled toward Wright’s first national title, those once-gobsmacked reporters came to realize I had been telling the truth back in St. Louis. I remember sitting in a breakout room at that Final Four with Ryan Arcidiacono. A reporter sneezed, and mid-sentence, Arcidicacono stopped and said, “God bless you.” The reporter looked at me and said, “Is this whole thing for real? This is like the easiest, nicest team in the country. ”
Easy and nice, of course, do not always garner respect, and for years Wright’s ability to easily and nicely handle his job probably worked against him. People mistaken his likability, dandy suits and neat hair for a lack of substance. They missed how hard he worked, the sharpness of his basketball mind and, frankly, how exacting he could be. His players always got a good chuckle about “nice guy” Jay Wright, suggesting perhaps people sit in on a practice before making such an pronouncement.
The 2016 title and his cool reaction to Jenkins’ sizzling shot started to change that. Suddenly everyone hopped on the Wright bandwagon. He even thawed the cold heart of Philadelphia, where Villanova long lived as the suburban snobs on the Main Line, less the carpetbaggers of the Big 5 and more the nouveau riche. People tried to hate him; they couldn’t. More than one Saint Joseph’s fan has bemoaned to me the sad reality that Wright has made Villanova likable, a sacrilegious statement if ever there was one in the Philly Holy War annals.
On the day of the Wildcats’ national championship parade, I sat with him in the office. Wright admitted he was worried that his life would change. He liked the rhythm of Philadelphia, and where he fit into the sports hierarchy – decidedly after the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies and Flyers. He liked that he could go to his beach house with a baseball hat and nobody bothered him.
Down the hall in the team meeting room, as the players gathered for a quick breakfast, you could hear the buzz outside his window from the police officers’ motorcycles as they gathered to escort the team downtown. Wright stopped for a minute as he heard them rev. “How about this, Kiddo?” he said. “How the hell did this happen?”
(Photo of Jay Wright: Brett Wilhelm / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)